Stay Awake

Grace and peace …

Lord, …

In August when Denny and I were in Venice, we visited St. Mark’s Basilica, considered by many to be one of the most beautiful churches in the world. This nearly thousand year old structure was built to replace a previous building that burned in the year 976. Over the years, there have been additions added, as well as almost continual renovation and refurbishing. On the Saturday morning that we were there, we joined a very long line that stretched across the square, a line waiting to tour this magnificent cathedral. Everywhere in Venice, beginning at the airport, there are signs and posters inviting tourists to come—admission is absolutely free, these ads proclaim.

Once we were inside the multi-level basilica, however, we discovered that all the rooms outside the main sanctuary require a fee to enter. And there are a lot of other rooms, most of them with intriguing names, such as “St. Peter’s Chapel,” and “St. Mark’s Relics.” Much of the interior is covered with mosaics made from ground gold. As we walked through this magnificent structure, it made me think of what it must have been like to enter the Temple in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day—another building covered in gold and marble. Another building created to worship God that had become more a place of business than a place of worship.

Thousands of people tour the basilica every day—and collecting a euro from only a fraction of them to tour secret rooms is surely an incredibly profitable venture for the church. On Sunday morning, however, when the building is closed to tourists, we returned to the Basilica for worship, to find ourselves sitting with maybe 40 other people in the vast sanctuary—about half of whom were nuns.

This bring us to the beginning of this morning’s gospel reading:

Luk 21:5  And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said, 

Luk 21:6  “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” 

So after visiting St. Mark’s, I imagine that I can understand at least a little bit what it must have been like for Jesus outside the temple, just a day or two before He’ll be sacrificed for all these people who care more about this beautiful building than they do about the God the building was created to worship and glorify. The God who provided the building, the God who gave them their country, the God who, out of His enormous and never-ending love, has sent His only Son into the world to die.

I can also imagine how shocking His words would have been to those listening. The Temple was a thing of wonder; people came from all over to visit it, to admire it. But even beyond its beauty, it was a solid and massive structure, the destruction of which would have hard to comprehend. Some of the individual stones were more than 60 feet long and 7 feet high. How do you begin to destroy solid stone of this dimension?

Last April, when fire destroyed much of another great church, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, we were able to watch it live, witnessing the heartache people were experiencing as they saw their beloved cathedral go up in flames. And yet while the building suffered massive damage, damage so great that some wonder if it is even possible to restore or rebuild, when it was all over, we saw that the main altar, the gold cross on the altar, and the large cross hanging above it, remained untouched.

2000 years ago, the Jewish Temple was the very center of life for the Israelite people—and its ultimate destruction will bring about an end to much more than just temple worship. Jesus knows this—He also knows that none of them are ready to understand what this means for them. At the same time, He knows that someday, when the city and the temple are utterly destroyed, they’ll remember His prophesy.

And so following what was surely a shocked silence:

Luk 21:7  And they asked him, “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” 

And in His answer, Jesus describes two separate events. The first, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, will occur in the year 70 AD, only 35-40 years in the future. He tells them they will know that event is at hand when they “see Jerusalem surrounded by armies.”

Luk 21:20  “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. 

Luk 21:21  Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, 

Luk 21:22  for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. 

Luk 21:23  Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. 

Luk 21:24  They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”

It will be unimaginably horrible, far worse than anything they’ve ever experienced. The Jewish historian Josephus reported that 1,100,000 Jews in Jerusalem were murdered during the Roman invasion and another 97,000 were taken to Rome as part of the triumphant victory parade to the capital. He recorded stories of mothers murdering their own children, roasting them and eating them as an illustration of just how awful conditions were for those living in Judea at that time. After it was all over, the Romans crucified those left alive until they literally ran out of wood for making crosses.

So Jesus warns His listeners to run as soon as they see armies surrounding the city. Run to the mountains immediately—as fast as they can possibly go. Don’t stop for anything.

We’ve often heard it said that history repeats itself. 2000 years ago in ancient Israel, the Jewish people also knew this saying—knew it and believed it, probably far more than we do. They knew their history. And while they often strayed from following God, they absolutely believed in the God of Abraham. Not only believed in Him, but believed that He controlled all things, including history.

This was a culture where every little Jewish boy, educated in the synagogue, knew how God had rescued His people from slavery in Egypt—how He’d sent the plagues and then rolled back the waters of the Red Sea, allowing His people to cross over to the other side on dry ground. And then rolling the waters back to destroy the army that was trying to recapture them.

And they understood their God to be a God of order. Every one of them had learned the creation story—the story of how God had spoken created order of chaos. How He had created a world in which everything—the earth itself, the plants that came from the ground, the animals and birds and fish in the sea, and then humankind itself—all connected.

They understood that God controls all things—and that there is a reason for everything that happens. And they believed that are patterns that repeat themselves. History repeating itself over and over again. It’s clear, for example, that they saw their exile to Babylon as a repeat of the pattern of the exodus. They understood that there were times when they were faithful to God and He gave them rest—and other times when they turned away from Him and He brought trouble upon them.

Jesus was Himself, of course, one of those Jewish boys who had been educated in the synagogue—and so when, during His final week of life on this earth, He wanted to explain what would happen in the future, He did it in a way that would be familiar to them. A way that they would remember.

But before that happens, Jesus says, there will be other troubles. He says, beginning in verse 12 and continuing through verse 19:

Luk 21:12  But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 

Luk 21:13  This will be your opportunity to bear witness. 

Luk 21:14  Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, 

Luk 21:15  for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. 

Luk 21:16  You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. 

Luk 21:17  You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. 

Luk 21:18  But not a hair of your head will perish. 

Luk 21:19  By your endurance you will gain your lives. 

People aren’t going to like these followers of Jesus any more than they liked Jesus Himself. They’re going to be persecuted—and we find, in the Book of Acts, all these things happening. Jesus doesn’t want them to be surprised.

Following Jesus will be hard; they’ll “be hated by all for Jesus’ name’s sake.” But there’s good news, too: “Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.”

And whatever happens, Jesus will be with them. He assures them that He’ll tell them what to say and what to do.

Until the Romans come—then they’re to run. Run fast.

And after Jerusalem is destroyed, there will still be trouble in the world—they’ll still need to persevere and remain strong in their faith.

Luke 21:8-11

Luk 21:8  And he said, “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them. 

Luk 21:9  And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once. 

Luk 21:10  Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 

Luk 21:11  There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. 

Brothers and sisters in Christ, these are the days in which we live. Jesus was describing the new era that would begin on Pentecost: the church era. He was describing events that would occur all around the world. These events would end only when Jesus returns again.

Luk 21:9  And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once. 

Luk 21:10  Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 

Luk 21:11  There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven.